Maybe my story will make sense if I share my background. I come from a crisscross lineage. Dark as my skin looks to white people, they look amused when they learn about my Irish ancestry. Fair as my skin looks to black people, more specifically Nigerians, they already conclude what I am when they learn that my paternal grandfather is Irish. Oyinbo .
But the issue isn’t my skin color. It is– for lack of a better word– skin deep. As a product of an “inter-tribal” union, my bloodstream is not dominated by a majority ethnic group; rather, it consists of minority groups originating from Delta and Edo with a debatable speckle of Egyptian (I’ve been told that my maternal ancestors made a great trek). Trek or not, life is easier when it comes in one package. And for me, my brand happens to be made in Nigeria. So when people ask where I am from, I just say: Nigeria. White people don’t look so confused but sadly enough Nigerians themselves are baffled. They want to know what tribe I belong to. But where exactly in Nigeria? They are never satisfied with my answer.
I suppose you could say it all started in boarding school. A time when the roster distributed to my teachers marked “Nigerian” as my nationality. It was with this same guide that students identified their own kind, Ghanians covered their backs, Zambians joked freely among each other, Gambians laughed among themselves and Nigerians, the most diverse group of students, defended themselves in jest. National rivalries aside, we were all one big happy family. A “tribe-less” community with only national borders as our boundaries.
During the same time, my tribe-less bubble of community faced the bursting threat of reality at a dinner I had with two of my Nigerian friends and their Dad. He wanted to know where exactly in Nigeria I was from. I paused for a moment and thought about what it was about me that made me Nigerian: Lagos.
The dinner ended with me regretting what I said. He didn’t say it but I knew he didn’t believe me. I wasn’t Yoruba after all. It was then I realized that growing up in a household that embraced nationality over tribe translated as bad upbringing. Such conversations were usually accompanied with disapproving facial expressions and probably resulted with the internal question of what kind of person doesn’t know where they are from?
While I faced college with people willing to accept my nationality as my identity, I came across one or two Nigerians who also wanted to know where exactly I came from. And since it was established that I was not from the only city I ever lived in while I was based in Nigeria, I did not pause to think about what made me Nigerian. I spoke without thinking. I proudly pronounced my paternal grandmother’s village.
They didn’t know where it was, neither did I. This approach changed that dreaded question of “Where exactly are you from?” to “Where the hell is that?” Back to the drawing board.
I once read a proverb that went: No frog is tied to a rope by a pond. My understanding of this proverb is that, although we are not physically bound there, we will always return to our home. Back into the pond where my parents resided, I laced them with questions about our heritage and found out that they also spent majority of their lives outside their hometowns (as did their parents) and were influenced by the various Nigerian cities they lived in. We were all in the same boat. At this stage, I did what any reasonable human being looking for answers will do. I created my own answer. I became Nigerian to non-nigerians and Delta & Edo (whatever that meant) to Nigerians. And for the passport official who asked why I held an Irish passport? That was another story.
But after years of soul searching, of seeking the answers from my tribal-free parents and creating my own answer for the outside world, I have given up on this idea that knowing your village or tribe is the true essence of discovering where you are from — or better yet, being Nigerian. Isn’t it time we have equal claim over our land? I ask, perhaps with wishful thinking, that instead of creating distinctions between ourselves, we learn to embrace our common identity; the one we tend to reminisce about when we are on foreign shores, the one we defend when non-Nigerians judge us. Because whether or not our make-up is diverse, our brand is still made in Nigeria.